In 1970s Atlanta, there was wide disdain and police harassment toward the LGBTQ+ community—even as the city was growing more tolerant off of civil rights–era fumes. The antipathy lingered throughout the decade, though the city’s changing demographics shifted political weight in favor of Maynard Jackson, who had become not only the city’s first Black mayor but a determined ally to the gay community.
In A Night at the Sweet Gum Head, released this month by W.W. Norton, journalist Martin Padgett sutures this context into the accounts of two main subjects: Bill Smith, who helped lead the Georgia Gay Liberation Front, worked as a city commissioner, and published the South’s leading gay newspaper, the Barb; and John Greenwell, who rose to drag stardom performing as Rachel Wells at the Sweet Gum Head nightclub. Along the way, the Cheshire Bridge Road nightclub itself (named after the Florida hometown of owner Frank Powell) emerges as a symbol of the South’s heady gay reverie and revolution, capturing the essence of a fleeting era bracketed by the Stonewall uprising and the AIDS epidemic.
Why the Sweet Gum Head?
I have lived within about a mile or two of Cheshire Bridge Road since 1997, and I started to look around for story ideas. It’s that transition place between Buckhead and Morningside and Emory that I always kind of thought of as the gutter—in a loving way. It’s always been a place where you could buy alcohol when other counties were dry, where you could go to a gay bar, a strip club, then have some fried chicken at the Colonnade.
Eventually, I started focusing on what was immediately outside of my door. The gay community had all these bars on Cheshire Bridge Road and all this history, and I really didn’t know anything about it. I started rereading material, and I came across this nightclub called the Sweet Gum Head. I thought I knew and had been to just about every gay bar in the city. Why didn’t I know this one?
It was in a space that was right next door to where I lived. I had no idea that it had existed because it closed in 1981. When I started to read stories about it, they were all focused on the drag shows—and Atlanta is known for drag. But Sweet Gum’s story is also a way to track the development of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement in Atlanta. This nightclub was open for nearly 10 years, just between the Stonewall uprising and the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. When I dug deeper, I realized that there are major pieces of queer history that have been overlooked.
To some extent, we had forgotten about the 1970s because, in the 1980s, everyone was consumed with trying to stay alive and stay healthy and to nurse their friends and to watch them die. I realized that, earlier, there must have been this time of happiness and optimism and excitement that I needed to know more about.
Talk about the multiple fronts of the movement.
There definitely has been this split in the gay community and the queer community about how to press for equality. Some felt that gradual, incremental change was the way that they could get the outside world to accept us. And then, there were the rebels who just wanted to set it on fire. For the first few years, there were small acts of liberation, where people would simply be seen in public in a gay venue or be seen holding hands.
One of the men I interviewed, Gil Robison, a longtime civil-rights and queer-rights activist in town, said the 1970s were a time of exploration and optimism. People really felt like anything could happen, and they felt like they didn’t have to be bound by labels and identities. They explored that—whether that was going out in full drag and “passing” as women or men, or whether it was Bill Smith and “an army of lovers” forced to march on a sidewalk by the police because the ACLU wouldn’t help get permits for an official gay-rights protest. When they marched down the sidewalks in 1971, they had to stop for stoplights; they had to wait for traffic to go by. Those small acts of protest ended up building into this massive protest in 1978 outside of the Southern Baptist Convention [which was meeting at the Georgia World Congress Center], where between 2,000 and 4,000 people protested Anita Bryant speaking inside because of what she had to say about gay people. It was the most notable, most widely covered protest of that kind in Atlanta, and it catalyzed the gay community and straight allies at the same time.
You mentioned that some stories still elude you. Do you have a sense of what they are and where you would look next?
I’ve been hunting for a taped copy of Today in Georgia from March 24, 1978. It was a half-hour television show on WSB, hosted by Nancy Scott at the time, and that episode was recorded entirely inside the Sweet Gum Head. Also, there’s always the central mystery of Bill, who died of a drug overdose just a few months shy of age 32. To this day, I keep overturning notes and sources and thinking there’s got to be something else that Bill left behind. Why did he decide to take his own life? Did he feel threatened, or did he give up? Did he just suffer from activist burnout like a lot of people did? Did his addiction overwhelm him and he wasn’t able to see a way out? I had this thrilling moment where I went to the New York Public Library and found this unnoted cassette tape about an Atlanta gay hotline. I popped it in and was listening to it, and it was Bill’s voice. I knew it right off the bat. It’s those things that just give you the right kind of chills.
You write that this book “is our story of freedom.” Do you feel free?
There’s always, always freedom to be claimed, always a voice to be claimed, and always a space to be created for people who feel excluded otherwise. I really do consider myself lucky because I chose Atlanta to come out. I chose this place to find a community.
On the one hand, some of the queer community feel like the city has changed and it’s no longer a place where we collect and connect. Other cities have kind of taken Atlanta’s mantle. But for a few decades, if you were gay, and if you were living in the South, you knew where it was, and you knew what went on here. You gravitated toward it. You came here to find yourself. And the more I read what I’ve written, the more I realize that this is my story, too, because I was one of those people. To me, this is paying back a debt—a debt of self-awareness and of comfort and love.
Excerpt from A Night at the Sweet Gum Head
The Sweet Gum Head turned four years old in 1975, old by gay-bar standards, but still perched at the core of a budding gay neighborhood along sleazy Cheshire Bridge Road, ignored by those who closed their blinds to it in the tract homes that sat just a few hundred feet away.
The straight neighbors had little choice but to accept its late-night crowds: Gay clubs had cropped up all along the road, a former dirt path that cut through a Confederate soldier’s farm.
Cheshire Bridge had become a wider thoroughfare before World War II; the GI Bill brought hundreds of new families to the freshly paved streets that flanked it with quickly built ranch homes.
The interstate plowed through in the ’60s, and brought the exit ramps that led directly to the first liquor stores that Georgians from dry counties could find just inside the Fulton County line.
When the neighborhood shifted toward the louche, gays and lesbians reclaimed it, bringing with them their doctors and teachers and lawyers, the gay newspaper, the gay bookstores, gay churches, a gay massage parlor or two, and a half-dozen gay bars, including the Sweet Gum Head.
Gay bars had become bright, showy places that attracted larger crowds than ever: “Gay people like to be awed by their own numbers,” Peter Winokur, the owner of Atlanta gay bar Mother’s, told Time.
The Sweet Gum Head counted as one of the 10,000 discos that had opened across the country by 1975, but not one that spent thousands on sound systems, luxurious bathrooms, and valet parking.
The Sweet Gum Head relied on talent—$25-a-night drag performers and lots of hard work. A single, revolving, mirrored disco ball would be joined by a second one, both reflecting blips of light across the dance floor.
During the week, small late-night crowds gave performers the space and time to try out new numbers and to refine their act. Anyone who watched a show at two in the morning was either too drunk to leave, or had nowhere else to go. Drag queens tested the waters with experimental long-playing disco tracks between the favorites that raked in tips. On weekends, people crushed to get into the club, built to seat only about three hundred people.
The Gum Head had become an A-list event in a B-list town, a magnet for visiting celebrities who themselves became transmitters of gay culture.
• • •
Among the regulars, comedian Paul Lynde took a seat in front of the stage. Frank Powell often said he and Lynde had gone to school together, but how that was possible he never made clear: Lynde came from Ohio and attended Northwestern in Chicago, while Frank had left rural Florida for school in South Carolina before he came to Atlanta. One evening in September, Rachel prepared for the show in the tiny dressing room she shared with Satyn [DeVille].
The crowd had been loud all night but grew louder as Herman leaned in the dressing-room door. “You’re not going to believe who’s sitting in my section,” he sputtered. “And make it quick, I’m losing money as we speak. Burt Reynolds!” Rachel went back to her makeup. Sure, she thought. Like he would come in here. The biggest box-office star around.
A football player from north Florida, Reynolds had gay friends, went to gay clubs, cultivated a gay audience, even aped the Castro-clone look of mustache and jeans popular among gay men. He fed his own universal appeal with plenty of nongendered flirtation, like the infamous Cosmopolitan photo shoot in which he posed nude, barely tucking his manhood from view. He had acted brilliantly in Deliverance—a film where the rape of a man quickly became a punch line for off-color jokes—but Reynolds believed his Cosmo centerfold and his sexuality had kept him from being nominated for an Oscar. Inside Rachel and Satyn’s tiny dressing room, the noise turned into a din. “Could be,” Satyn mused while spraying her hair into submission. Rachel put on a robe to see exactly what was going on, then needled her way past the DJ to an immobile clot that surrounded Reynolds. It was him. On a break while filming Gator down in the Okefenokee Swamp, he had come to Atlanta and decided to check out the biggest drag-show bar in America.
“Oh my God! You are Burt Reynolds!” She managed to get closer through the throng that swelled around him before she had to zip into her next dress. “Hi, I’m Rachel Wells. I’m in the show here.”
Then, the crowd swallowed him again. She [was getting ready] for her next number when she heard a knock at the dressing-room door. “It’s getting a little crazy out there,” John Austin said as he brought Burt into the tiny room at the front of the club. “Can he hide out in here?” And there he sat, dark hair tousled in the excitement, mustache brushed askew, friendly, warm, and witty.
Rachel worried about the dressing room, which smelled of cigarettes and beer and had drag outfits scattered all over, but Burt seemed oblivious and charmed her for the next fifteen minutes, until he left to go on to Mrs. P’s leather bar. Rachel couldn’t remember a thing he said to her, but she didn’t have to. It wouldn’t be the last time she saw him.
From the book A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drag, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta’s Gay Revolution. Copyright © 2021 by Martin Padgett. Reprinted with the permission of W.W. Norton.
A 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow, Martin Padgett has written books, features, product reviews, and news for 30 years. He earned his MFA in narrative nonfiction writing from the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. He is pursuing a PhD in History at Georgia State University.